Loss of Bright Things by Tamzin Whelan
AIR THICKENED IN HIS THROAT, warm, tasting of papaya and old smoke. He’d logged on for flight details and now the word ‘dead’ stared from the screen, reminding him just how far he was from home. Michael wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. Back in England, the cold and damp would be creeping deep into February bones. This long, thin cafe was cramped and his computer was at the end furthest from the street. A rusty fan nailed to the wall creaked in half circles, the breeze missing his chair. On the top of the ancient white monitor was written, in swoops and curls: ‘Bali, island of magic and smiles.’ Underneath, different pen, different writing: ‘and hawkers’.
At the far end of the rectangular room, the street buzzed with evening noise; motorbikes zipping around each other and languid, curb-perched drivers calling to dinner-seeking tourists. Laughter, in the distance. Michael turned back to the screen.
Joe’s dead, mate. Sorry.
The simplicity stabbed at him, twisting a fork in his stomach. But what else to say? They’d been lads together, the three of them. Greg wasn’t one for burning words. Joe was always the one with urgent fire inside. On snuck out nights at the pier, getting stoned on hash nicked from Greg’s cousin, Joe would ask those Big Questions and give frantic monologues of spaghetti answers. Michael had thought once that Joe’s words were like the reflection of stars in the sea, both near and far, gleaming but only because they lay in darkness. Greg would finish it – a joke, a kick of salt water. Back to life, leave string ravelled, why care about the length of things? Let’s go try get served at the King’s Head.
Michael crossed off the message and reached for the warm dregs left in his water bottle. Still no reply from his sister. Some invites to London nights, a couple of worried messages from mum, who was always filled with visions of his injury or sickness. Inventive sometimes – ‘don’t eat any jellyfish’ had been last week’s warning. He wrote: Mum, still alive, chill. He then deleted it and wrote: Am alright. Just heard about Joe. Love you.
The heat was unbearable. Fuck facebook and fuck computers.
Outside, breathing was easier. He’d spent the day travelling and then thrown his rucksack in a high, dark room at a guesthouse as cheap as any other. It was good to walk bag-free. Just a pack of smokes in one pocket and his wallet in the other. He took out a cigarette and asked for a lighter from one of the moto drivers sat on the pavement – a small man with brown teeth. He gave him a wide gummy smile and said ‘Keep the light, I have more’, and pulled three out of his pocket to prove it.
‘Asked the right man, then,’ Michael said and was rewarded by a rough cackle, straight from the belly and into the eyes. Some people were born to laugh.
Michael walked on and drew the smoke deep down his throat, feeling it fill his lungs. Better than fresh air, sometimes. Shops and restaurants lit the faded red brick of the high pavement. Michael walked instead on the thin concrete road, following its soft winding toward the ocean and the black sand beach. A German couple had told him there was a good place to eat down on the promenade – tasty, local and cheap. He shook his head at more offers of accommodation and motos as he walked. Having swelled to thrive on tourism, the off-season left a hole in this town.
Word about the cheap and tasty restaurant had apparently spread. All the round, wooden tables were taken. He scanned for empty plates or groups getting ready to leave, but found none. He was turning to leave when a girl said, ‘You can sit here if you like’.
She gestured at the empty chair opposite her and with that movement he had a moment to take her in. She was long and slight, with fair wispy hair that floated down her back and around her face. About his age, he guessed. She wore a thin yellow dress and brown sandals.
‘Thanks,’ Michael said as he sat, ‘I heard the food here’s great.’ Leaning back in her chair, she scanned his face with frankness.
‘It is,’ she said. ‘What were you thinking about just now?’
‘What?’ She shook her head, brisk and impatient, her hair making a fluffed halo around her.
‘Walking down the road, what were you thinking about? If you don’t want to tell me, just say so.’
Michael felt anger at her directness bubble up inside his stomach and evaporate just as quickly. He looked back up the road from where he’d walked and then in the other direction towards the sea, at the stars waking up in the darkening sky.
‘I was thinking about an old friend who just killed himself,’ he told her, his gaze still on the stars. When he turned back, she nodded, just once.
‘I thought you looked sad,’ she said. He was glad she didn’t say she was sorry.
They talked about other things while they ate. When he asked, she told him that she was from a small town in New Zealand. Mostly, she asked her own questions, things like ‘what was the first thing you wanted to be as a kid?’ and ‘if you could be amazingly talented at anything, what would it be?’
So, Michael told her about his model plane collection, and how he used to set up cardboard boxes in the garden and pretend that he was flying his own. He told her that if he could, he would play the drums better than Dave Grohl.
‘Do you play drums at all?’ she asked, scooping curry onto her spoon.
Michael laughed. ‘No, my rhythm’s terrible. Learnt the piano for a while though.’
Her name was Sophie. She spoke fast and moved her hands all the while like she was trying to trace the outline of everything she said. When he asked her how long she’d been travelling, she told him about a family she’d met – two parents and a ten-year-old boy – who had been travelling since the boy was two years old.
‘He was the coolest kid ever. He was so much more… interested than kids back home. And cocky as anything – he’d talk to anyone and asked questions all the time, about where they were from and what they were doing.’
‘He doesn’t go to school then?’ Michael asked. She shrugged. ‘He already speaks four languages and fixes engines, so I’m guessing he’ll be alright.’
Michael talked about the couple he’d hung out with for a week in Australia. About how they’d been travelling together for years, making and selling jewellery made of shells and netted rope. Both leathered and small, like walnuts, Michael had thought they looked like brother and sister.
‘They were cool – really cool, but also a bit crazy somehow. Rather serious about it all. I guess once you’ve been travelling that long, it’s not fun anymore, it’s just everyday life. I don’t know if I could do it really, not forever – I want to settle down somewhere. Eventually.’
‘I’ll never settle down’ Sophie said.
Michael wondered at the curious way she said it, sad and questioning, but he didn’t ask why. People often said things like that. Sometimes they even believed it.
As their plates were cleared, she said, ‘Tell me about your friend,’ as if they’d never left that discussion.
Michael felt a fist close tight in his chest. ‘His name was Joe,’ he told her. ‘He used to be my best mate, back in secondary school.’
‘That’s high school, right?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. After a pause: ‘He jumped off a cliff. Devil’s Peak.’
‘That’s the name of the cliff?’
Michael nodded. ‘We used to go there after school and drink beers.’ They let the silence rest until the bill came.
Leaving the restaurant, they turned right and walked towards the sea, past the town’s landmark dolphin statue to sit on the small concrete steps leading to the beach. The night was illuminated and the water stretched far into a sepia horizon. Behind them, groups of locals sat on the low wall that divided sand from promenade. A couple walked where the water stroked the sand, arms interlaced around shoulders and waist. Michael lit a cigarette and offered Sophie the pack. She pulled a menthol from her own pack with a shrug, a smile, and leant in to light it with his flame. They breathed deeply, in unison, and blew grey clouds out into the night air.
‘Pulls you in, this ocean,’ she said. ‘Calmest piece of sea I’ve ever seen. If there was ever water I wanted to just walk straight into and never stop, this is it.’
‘Did you see the dolphins?’ Michael asked. That was the big pull for this northern town – in the south were the parties, white beaches and good surf, Ubud had yoga and fashion and food. Lovina had dolphins.
‘Yeah. They were amazing, though the whole thing is kind of ridiculous– all these silly humans chasing after them in big loud boats. Everybody hiding behind their cameras as soon as we could actually see them.’
‘Do you think they mind?’
‘No. I think they come to play. I reckon they find it funny. They wouldn’t come back if they didn’t want to.’ He nodded.
‘I might go tomorrow,’ he said.
They spoke for hours. As the conversation expanded, he realised that she soon skipped past any topic she felt to be trivial. Behind her busy hands and quick ideas there was intensity – a careful seriousness. They bought beers from a shop that also sold dolphin bottle openers and seaweed-flavoured crisps and they drank them slowly back by the water. They moved from the steps to meander down the dark beach, tracing toe patterns in a patch of phosphorescent sand and coming to rest on an old log, washed high up the shore. Michael noticed a brown, round mole on her pale wrist as it rested against her leg.
‘Have you been to any of the waterfalls round here?’ She asked him. He shook his head, no.
‘Well there’s one – it’s kind of a secret only locals know about. I went there a few days ago and it’s beautiful. Do you want to go?’
‘Tomorrow?’ Michael asked.
She grinned. ‘No, now.’
She’d rented a bike for a few weeks from a place in Singaraja. Worked out at about $3 a day. He sat behind her and held the metal handle on the back with both hands. She drove fast. The roads were quiet at this time of night, especially the small ones, and the surface grew more uneven the further away from town they got. On the really rough roads, she slowed down, but only slightly. She stopped once at a crossroads to work out where they were going.
‘It was daytime when I came before. Oh, this is the road I think.’ It was more of a track than a road, heading downwards, lined with trees that blocked out most of the moonlight. They bumped over rocks lit by the bike’s headlight until Sophie let them roll to a stop, parking the bike sideways.
‘We can leave it here and walk the rest of the way.’ She took off her sandals and threw them down by the front wheel. Barefoot, she led them to a narrow sandy path that branched off the track and descended into the sloping jungle. They wound through trees, following the path as it thinned and the plant life grew possessively around it. There were no signs, but Sophie walked on. For ten minutes, he just followed her, seeing thin shoulder blades and yellow straps: hair like fine wheat and movements like a gazelle.
They could hear the waterfall before they saw it. It was in a small clearing, about six metres high. The water fell into a perfect round pool, ringed by rocks. Michael took off his own shoes to follow her over the rocks to where the falling water had formed the deepest part of the pool. The noise was giant. They sat there side by side and put their feet into the cool, black water. With lit cigarettes, they looked on in silence at the star-filled circle of sky above them, the constant roaring spray, and the darkness behind the trees. Michael leant back on his elbows to blow smoke rings up into the air.
Sophie asked, ‘When was the last time you saw him, your friend?’ Michael stopped blowing rings and turned to meet her eyes. He’d worked that out earlier – it had been the summer of second year. Danielle’s birthday. The old gang had met down at the beach for a night, a reunion of fire and drinks, salt and sand. Like school days, only not. Him and Joe had wandered off for a spliff and a chat about trivial things. Mostly old times.
‘I haven’t seen him for two years.’ He flicked his cigarette behind them. She waited, watching. He wished that she hadn’t asked him about it. It had been good to forget, if only for a few hours. The waterfall had become too loud – obnoxiously consistent and un-human. He thought about how he’d said goodbye to Joe that night – a casual salute as he’d left. Pretty far gone by then, Joe was sat by the fire with a whiskey bottle and some girl who was still in school. A salute. Had he even said anything? ‘See you later, mate’? Anything?
‘Fuck.’ Michael hit fist into palm. ‘I’m so angry at him, you know. But then what about me? I should have noticed, for fuck’s sake… checked in and seen how he was and tried to help… something. I should have done something.’ Fury at his own failure filled him, clenching his fingers tight and bringing bile up into his throat.
‘I get angry when I’m sad.’ Her voice was steady and low. ‘It’s easier somehow – more active. It feels like there’s something to do with anger, somewhere for it to go. It’s so external. Sadness just sinks into you like it will never stop.’ She spoke as she thought. Like Joe. Like Joe had. Her voice carried on, soft. ‘But then sadness can lead you to the great abyss. And that abyss makes everything seem so meaningful and so small all at the same time that maybe it’s worth it.’ She stubbed her cigarette out on the rock and put the end back into the box.
Michael watched her and felt his rage crumble. Yes, there was sadness. He thought about people back home. About Greg and Danielle. About Joe’s Mum.
‘It’s strange being away for this’ he said. ‘Nothing in my life has changed much, you know? Not physically – not in Bali. But I know that Joe isn’t here anymore. So the world is different. It has changed, only in a way that feels kind of – abstract.’
She stared down at her submerged feet and kicked them up one at a time, spraying water forward.
‘Sometimes this stuff is easier away from home – the life and death stuff. Distance can help.’
‘Yeah, maybe, but I kind of wish that I could see some of the people who knew him, you know – so it’s not just all in my head.’ He paused to bring pieces of his memory back together. ‘When we were about fourteen, I remember we watched some movie and made a pact – that we’d commit suicide when we were fifteen, giving us one year to live. The idea was that we’d live so fully in that one year that it would be worth a whole lifetime. Of course, when the time came round, we’d forgotten about it. I don’t think we ever fully believed it, but that day I wanted to.’ He could almost see them, on the playing field at lunchtime, shaking hands on it. ‘Stupid.’
She had moved and was crouched on the rock as he spoke, fingers stretching to the water, making circled ripples span outwards. She stopped and gazed at him curiously, as if trying to work something out.
‘No. Well, yes – stupid, but it makes sense in a way too.’ She rested chin on hand. ‘Once I was walking through a park with a friend – a really beautiful park near my old house – and we were laughing about something as we passed two old ladies sat on a bench. It was sunny – a glowing kind of day. They watched us pass as we laughed and we all smiled at each other, and I just heard one lady, the eldest, lean in to her friend and say, “You know, the older I get, the more I feel that life is worth living.” It’s stayed with me for years that moment, and that phrase – ‘The older I get, the more I feel that life is worth living’ – isn’t that the most wonderful, terrible paradox? That the less life we have left, the more valuable it becomes?’ The jungle filled the pause that came to rest between them.
Nothing to do about that, he thought – can’t stop water falling. He let his eyes trace the profile of her face: she stared at the moon or the branches of the trees, he couldn’t be sure which. She looked back at him before rocking herself up to standing and pulling her dress over her head. Michael looked up at her long limbs, her slender body, angular in hips and shoulders. She seemed fragile. The expression on her face made him think of a scared child. A cloud passed over the moon and melted her silver skin into shadow. She stood there for another instant, perfect in mismatched underwear – like a sprite, Michael thought, a real-life sprite – then dove into the pool. He didn’t realise he was holding his breath until she surfaced and gave a shout of laughter. He breathed again with her.
‘It’s great! You coming in?’
He whooped with the coolness as he came up for air. His clothes sat heaped on the rock next to hers. They swam as close to the spray as possible and let themselves be pushed backwards by the current of the falling force to drift into the middle of the pool. As the water became shallower, something below the water glinted, drawing him towards it. Diving, he came up with a stone. It sat on his open palm, as radiant as it had first seemed. It was an almost perfectly round, and orange in colour, not like any stone he had seen before.
‘What is it?’ Sophie moved closer, peering into his hand. She picked up the stone with forefinger and thumb and held it up to the moon. ‘It’s so round – and so bright! Why is it orange do you think?’
Michael, distracted by her shoulder, freckled and wet, took a minute to answer.
‘I don’t know.’
‘It’s beautiful,’ she said.
‘Keep it. I think it was meant for you,’ he told her. Her eyes lit, glowing for a moment. She smiled.
They half-dried themselves with their clothes before putting them back on, damp and clinging. A shyness had come and the walk back to the bike was quiet.
She drove slower than before. They seemed to be the only ones awake in all the world. They found out they were staying in the same guesthouse, but didn’t even laugh about it. They motored into the open gated driveway, climbed off the bike and whispered their way to the courtyard. They stopped there, facing each other for a heartbeat pause before he kissed her. Moments knew only that the two of them existed, lips on lips and skin to skin. He pulled her body to him, feeling her smallness. A bird called out from a distant tree. She pulled away and looked at him, absorbing his face – lips, nose, and coming to rest in his eyes. She leant in to hug him, long and hard, and he kissed the top of her ear.
‘I can’t – nothing can happen tonight,’ she said, voice muffled into his chest. ‘But can I just sleep next to you?’
They climbed the stairs to the second storey of the old red building and trod the long balcony to his room. Michael was glad the room was clean – a fresh bed and just his rucksack in the corner. He closed the door behind them, switched on the fan, and drew the curtains against the lightening world. They lay facing each other. He rested his hand on her hip and she moved to meet his mouth with hers. They kissed hard and Michael felt as though the birds began to sing in chorus with them and the stars drew closer to peer in the window.
When they parted, she was crying. He stroked a teardrop from the end of her nose and she put a finger to his lips before he could ask her what was wrong. She turned and nestled herself into the arch of his body, a dormouse in hay. He kissed her head again, feeling the warmth and the roundness of it beneath his lips, and held her until she slept.
He awoke thirsty and exuberant, the sun shining on his face through a gap in the curtains. Turning, he saw that where she had been there was only a note. It was written on a blank page, torn from a book. On one side was a poem, in slanted, tall letters:
Losing too is still ours, and even forgetting
still has a shape in the kingdom of transformation.
When something’s let go of, it circles, and though we are rarely the centre of the circle,
it draws around us its unbroken, marvellous curve.
And on the other side:
I’m not one for goodbyes. Thank you for the stone. Xxx
Michael watched the feeling he had woken with leave him. Taking its place, a heavy emptiness filled his stomach. He asked the old guesthouse owner when she had left.
‘This morning,’ he was told, the old man smiling happily. ‘Early, maybe 7am. No breakfast,’ he added.
‘Where did she go?’ The old man shook his head.
‘She didn’t say. Only she leave Bali. You want breakfast now?’
Michael didn’t want breakfast. The hollow in his stomach was not for food. He walked down to the coast instead and watched the bug boats bring back their loads of dolphin-seeking tourists. They exited the boats clumsily, splashing into one foot of water, cameras held high.
He tried to work out why. Why she had left. And why it mattered so much. But without her, there was only his version of the night and old insecurities to interfere with it. Neither got him very far.
He never went to see the dolphins. He waited another few days in Lovina, half-hoping that she’d return. The first night after she left, he got very drunk and was helped back to the guesthouse by some boys he’d been drinking with down at the beach. The next day he spent recovering, a woollen haze of aching and sleeping.
The third day after she’d left, he was still waiting, just in case, and realised that it was the day of Joe’s funeral back home. That evening the stillness of the town became oppressive and he knew it was time to go. As he checked out, the smiling old man let him copy down her full name from the guest book.
He rented a motorbike and drove up to the mountains. He stayed a week in a high mountain village where Gamelan music echoed throughout the high valley at night. He headed out west to the quiet white-beached fishing villages, and then down south to slow, small islands. Spent an unfortunate few nights in Kuta before flying out to Malaysia. Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia: the countries listed together so easily by the end of the trip, in constant answer to that ‘where have you been’ question thrown so carelessly around hostels.
When he arrived back home, no one asked him for the list. He’d been ‘away’ (Asia, wasn’t it mate?), ‘travelling’ (good to get it over with while you’re young), and now he was back in the ‘real world’. No one cared about where he had been, only about what he was doing next weekend. He got a short-term job teaching English at summer schools and rented the spare room at his Mum’s place. It gave him a few months to work out what to do next.
He was looking in the old travel book for the address of a school he’d taught at in Malaysia when he saw her name. Her note was there too, folded flat between the pages. He realised that he’d written something at the bottom of it – drunkenly by the look of his handwriting. It was a minute before he worked out what it was: her hometown. It took him a day to decide to call her, and another to work out how to find her phone number. He bought some skype credit and clicked the number into the screen. The ringing echoed.
‘Is this Sophie Lassel’s house?’
The man who answered sounded too young to be her father. Must be her brother. Brother, not boyfriend, Michael wished. Whoever it was, he didn’t sound impressed.
‘Who’s speaking, please?’
‘My name’s Michael. Sophie and I met a while ago – last February, in Bali. It took me a little while to track down her number,’ he added, nervous. The man’s voice was gruffer when he replied.
‘Sophie’s dead. She died two months ago.’
Michael’s mouth dried to ash in the silence that followed. His mind filled with her moonlit skin, her tears on his hand. The silence grew – weighty and black. Michael could sense the reluctant weariness at the other end of the line, but he had to know.
He was greeted by another silence, and then a distant sigh.
‘Sophie was very ill. She had cancer.’ There was crashing, a waterfall in his head. Had she known?
‘For how long?’ He asked and as he did so, he knew what the answer would be.
‘A few years. Last year we knew it was terminal. I take it she didn’t tell you?’ Michael shook his head before clearing his throat.
‘No. I’m – sorry.’ A very little word.
‘Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you,’ said the man. ‘We appreciate your call.’ It was a rote phrase that didn’t really apply to him, Michael knew. A line stored up for those friends of the family phone calls before the funeral. Not a random British lad who hadn’t even known she was dying.
‘I’m sorry.’ He let the man go. Michael stared at the computer screen for minutes without moving. He raced through memories of that night, looking for clues, finding too many and returning instead to the mole on her wrist, the curve of her shoulder. The smell of her hair. That day he’d sat by the endlessly still sea and wished for her to come back.
It was an hour before he cried, long shaking sobs into the old living room carpet.
He went to visit Joe’s tree that afternoon, where they’d buried his ashes in the old park. It was a beautiful day. Blue-skied with thin white trails of clouds, the sun bright and round.
‘Hey mate,’ he said, shrugged off his rucksack and lay down on the thick green grass. He was still for a long time, looking up at the sky. He touched his pocket to feel the folded paper there and spoke as if only for the leaves to hear:
‘Losing too is still ours…’ And for one half-moment, he thought that he could see it, maybe – that unbroken, marvellous curve.
Find more passionate beauty in SN3: Bastille Day – available on Amazon now!